Déjà vu All over Again

As Yogi Berra would say, “It was déjà vu all over again.” John Vorperian, host and executive producer of Beyond the Game, the popular White Plains, New York, Cable Television sports talk show, was quizzing Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club. The first time around March 13, 2014 the pair talked mostly about Steve Bilko and the 1956 Los Angeles Angels. They met again June 17 during the 2014 World Cup to discuss baseball in L.A. beyond Stout Steve and the slugging Seraphs.

Mays hits 3 homers One of the highlights of their latest conversation is White’s recounting of two exhibition games at L.A.’s Wrigley Field in late March 1955 between the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians. The teams met in the 1954 World Series, the Giants sweeping the heavily-favored Indians four straight. The rematch at Wrigley Field turned out to be a replay of the fall classic, the Giants winning both games behind the heroics of Willie Mays and James “Dusty” Rhodes. Mays slammed three straight homers to pace New York’s 4-2 win in the opener and, then, teamed with Rhodes to beat the Indians 7-3 in the second game played before an overflow crowd of 24,434. Rhodes belted a pinch-hit homer and Mays made a spectacular catch in centerfield just as they did in the World Series.

“Several thousand lined the outfield wall and hundreds stood at the back of the stands,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “An estimated 2,000 failed to get inside at all.”

Giants whip TribeThe games attracted a combined 42,327 fans, proving L.A. was ripe for major-league baseball. 

Times columnist Ned Cronin used the near-record turnout to castigate baseball commissioner Ford Frick for issuing a gag order to major league team owners on moving a franchise to L.A. “If a major league owner doesn’t know enough to give a gold mine a wide berth, he still has you, Mr. Frick, to keep him out of nervous disorders.”

It would be another three years before the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to L.A. and six years until the American League expanded from eight to 10 teams, adding the Angels, a merry band of misfits rounded up by cowboy actor and singer Gene Autry. “One of the worst clubs ever assembled,” Jimmy Cannon, the dean of media critics, declared after seeing the Angels play. “They are in these uniforms because they proved their inefficiency.”

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The 1957 Los Angeles Angels yearbook featured this story on Wrigley Field.

White points out in the interview that the Angels won six of nine games over the mighty New York Yankees at Wrigley Field in 1961. Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were outslugged by the Angels’ diminutive Albie Pearson. The 5-foot-5, 140-pound Pearson belted three homers while the M&M boys managed only two apiece. “You don’t need much muscle in this park,” Little Albie said. “Anyone can hit one over the fence here, even me.”

The Bronx Bombers were duds in L.A., hitting a mere 13 home runs in nine games at the bandbox that New York sportswriters had ridiculed for years. Mantle batted a measly .206 average (7-for-34).

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This 1954 artist rendition envisioned L.A.’s Wrigley Field as baseball’s most modern park with seating for 55,000 people. (Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

White touches all the bases in the interview – from an artist’s rendition of a refurbished Wrigley Field to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Dodgers’ first home in L.A. where left-handed hitting Wally Moon launched “moon shots” over the “Chinese Wall,” the nickname for a 40-foot high net erected in left field, a ridiculously short 251 feet from home plate.

 

A video of the 30-minute show can be seen on YouTube by clicking on the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-VIiJEeQWj4

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

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